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Giving Up Your Power Means Increasing Theirs

A few years ago, I had an enlightening podcast conversation with Barbara Coloroso, an author who has written several books and tackled issues of parenting, teaching, school discipline, nonviolent conflict resolution and reconciliatory justice. In our conversation, Barbara talked about three poisonous agents ripping apart our humanity: having utter contempt for other human beings; hoarding me, mine and more (instead of us, ours and enough); and harming by lying, cheating and stealing. She explained that the best antidote to those toxic tendencies is to create a climate in which we can care deeply, share generously and help willingly.

She then noted that some people might think that such an environment would backfire in a competitive workplace. But according to Barbara, this climate would actually result in the workplace learning to do its Great Work — the Great Work of making it a better place to work, with employees bettering themselves at the same time.

Being a great leader is about relinquishing power

I paused to think about this when I revisited this conversation recently, because so much of what Barbara said really resonates with me and the way I try to run Box of Crayons.

If you’ve read my book The Coaching Habit, you’ll know that my goal is to give busy managers the practical tools to coach in 10 minutes or less. And that is the gist of what we do at Box of Crayons. But what I really aim to do — and it’s worth distinguishing it a little here — is to help people become more coach-like. And the best way to become more coach-like is to say less and ask more.

Part of being a great leader is offering your employees the opportunity to share and create — thereby creating an environment like the one Barbara references. Being a great leader is about relinquishing power at the right moments. Asking questions is the easiest way to give up a little of your power in order to instill a little more in your employees.

But the behavior change of giving a little less advice and asking a few more questions can be surprisingly difficult to accomplish.

Stop “saving” your people

You’ve probably been praised for your advice and business ideas for years now. Why give up the look of control, to replace it with the uncertainty of questions? Asking questions feels less useful, slows down the conversation and causes you to lose control of it, right? But guess what? Handing over that control and losing your power is called “empowering.” And as you may suspect, empowering your employees can lead to Great Work.

Just as we managers are used to giving advice and jumping in to “save” our employees, we are often used to controlling the people, the process and the outcome of things in the workplace.

In Lead More, Control Less: 8 Advanced Leadership Skills That Overturn Convention, one concept authors Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff focus on is the importance of control. It takes self-awareness to recognize how you should act in certain stressful situations, even if impulse urges you to react differently. To me, that really relates well to the idea that it may feel wrong to not offer advice and instead just ask questions. It takes a great deal of effort to make that behavior change, even though it seems so simple.

When I talked to them both about that book and their theories behind Future Search, Sandra told me that she and Marvin had had the same idea, that “people really have capacity and they’re smart, and if we can create structures that enable them to do what they came to do, maybe really good things will happen.”

Future Search is a planning meeting that helps people transform their capability to action very quickly. It’s a strategic meeting design that relies on mutual learning among stakeholders. Marvin explained it as a way to help people discover their capabilities and then create structures that enable them to reach that potential.

To me, that’s what asking questions and giving up control essentially does in a conversation. You find out what your employees can do, create a space for learning and allow them the opportunity to follow through.

Unsurprisingly, one thing Sarah and Marvin noticed in one of their early Future Searches is that they were thanked for getting out of the way.

Get out of the way

By getting out of the way, leaders allow employees to become empowered, test the length of their responsibility and maximize their potential. Does a backseat driver ever help someone be a better driver? Probably not.

Let’s go back again to empowerment. If you’ve trained your people to be reliant on you, you have created an overdependence — they need you to help with everything and, in turn, are disempowered, unable to create their own solutions.

Your relinquishing some power and losing some control can help your employees maximize their potential and come up with more — more wisdom, more options, more solutions. By asking questions instead of offering advice, you can get to the heart of the challenge instead of running off to solve entirely the wrong problem. You can encourage development, help create moments of insight and learning and ultimately have more impact, all while doing less work.

Italian-American race car driver Mario Andretti said it best: “If everything’s under control, you’re going too slow.”

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